Experts applaud ordinary citizen's role in fighting crime

Many people are convinced that preventing and controlling crime is strictly police work. Police themselves and TV programs glamorizing their jobs sometimes nurture this view.

But strong evidence has surfaced in numerous studies over the last decade (many of them here at Northwestern University) that ordinary citizens play, and must continue to play, a crucial role in spotting, reporting, and warding off crime.The studies have shown that:

* Most criminal investigations by police start with a citizen phone call.

* Information from witnesses and victims provides the key to solving most crimes.

City budget cutbacks may make the citizen's volunteer role in helping police fight crime even more important. On the other hand, federal and state funds used to help underwrite local crime prevention programs have tailed off in recent years, making it more difficult for many communities to launch such programs.

National Institute of Justice spokesman Drew McKillips notes that the once generous funding for local crime prevention programs through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration has largely dried up over the last two years. Though Washington still provides some funding, some programs, funded by state, local, or foundation sources, have "gone by the boards," he says.

To underscore the need for citizens to keep a watchful eye on the neighborhood and report anything suspicious to police, the two-year-old Crime Prevention Coalition, a mix of 60 national and state organizations, has been running a series of public service ads featuring a dog named McGruff. Like any good sleuth, he is dressed in a trenchcoat. Cast as a commentator, much like Smokey the Bear for forest fire prevention, McGruff advises citizens on ways to "take a bite out of crime." A similarly strong "get involved" message is coming from a number of other anticrime organizations these days. The current theme of the Chicago Crime Commission, for instance, is: "Ignoring Crime is Criminal."

Most people would welcome the presence of more police officers patrolling their streets. But such dispatching is costly and, research indicates, not always that effective in actually reducing crime. Citizens simply feel more secure.

Many Americans have taken some practical steps to protect themselves at home -- adding locks, light timers, and other devices. But citizens can still stand an occasional reminder to use what they have. Dr. Fred Heinzelmann, director of the National Institute of Justice's Community Crime Prevention Division, points out that in a full 40 percent of burglaries criminals walk through an open door.

Studies by researchers at Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research indicate, however, that it is not individual anticrime action so much as participation in neighborhood improvement groups that gives citizens a solid feeling of security. Yet fear of crime is rarely the motive for joining such groups. The pull is more apt to be a wish to feel part of the community.

"Knowing your neighbors is probably the single most effective preventative force in reducing opportunities for crime," says Dr. Paul Lavrakas, assistant professor of journalism and urban affair at Northwestern and a man who has contributed significantly to research on citizen response to crime.

To many people, garbage, abandoned houses, vandalism, and street-corner loitering are all signs of a potentially high-crime neighborhood. The more the community does to reverse such apparent neglect, the safer the area begins to look in the eyes of residents and visitors.

"Fear of crime is not just of crime itself but of the incivilities that go with it," says Dr. Heinzelmann. "Part of it comes from a loss of community. . . . It's the feeling that somehow things are getting out of control."

But in some neighborhoods constant mobility, the desire for privacy, and the feeling that somehow minding one's own business is a better idea have replaced the old cohesiveness.

"I think there's a great need to get back to the good old days in getting some sense of community again," says Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum, director of planning and research for the Evanston Police Department. "There can be a tremendous social benefit in knowing people who share the same values as opposed to what's lost in privacy."

Evanston is going a step beyond many cities in the Comprehensive Crime Prevention Program it is launching for citizens, businesses, and middle schools. The aim is to do a better job of preventing and controlling crime through closer citizen and police cooperation and by tailoring action specifically to Evanston's experience with various types of crime.

Dr. Lavrakas, who has done much of the research for the Evanston project, strongly recommends that police go further than simply taking tips from citizens. He says police should share what they know about what goes on in the community, so that citizen anticrime efforts can be more effectively planned. "Communication has to flow two ways to work properly," he insists.

Evanston sixth graders from schools participating in the program will discuss such problems as staving off the peer pressure that sometimes leads to criminal behavior and finding ways other than a punch in the ribs to settle disagreement. Their parents will be involved too. Dr. Rosenbaum says that many school programs have been aimed at older children -- often "too late" to ward off delinquency, he says. These programs focus on punishment for crime as a key reason for not engaging in it.

"We're going to be pushing honesty, respect, and values," he explains. "Some studies have shown that a significant number of young people don't believe that shoplifting and other such crimes are wrong. It's time to step back in and say that they are -- you don't steal things from people."

While much citizen crime prevention work involves volunteer giving of time and thought, there is no question that the Reagan administration's federal budget cutbacks are having an impact even here. In many cases a central community organization or coordinator has received some federal funding. Certainly model cooperation programs such as the one in Evanston, originally slated for some $400,000 worth of help from Washington and now likely to get closer to half that amount, are feeling the pinch directly.

Many cities may be forced to choose among priorities in channeling available dollars into the crime fight.

"There is strong public support for fighting crime now, but many still see more police as the solution," says Evanston's Dr. Rosenbaum. "But it's a myth to think police find criminals on the street just by driving around -- police would be lost without citizen help. Prevention, one of the first things cut in police departments, is still taking a back seat to the push for law and order."

While police generally welcome, at least in public comments, citizen efforts to combat crime, many have decided views on just how far such help should go. Generally, according to Dr. Lavrakas, who surveyed 167 Chicago area police departments, police strongly endorse "passive" citizen action -- from locked doors and windows to reporting suspicious activity to police. If a weapon is visible, most police tend to advise against direct response such as screaming or defending oneself if attacked. Though research indicates that few of the many citizen patrol groups around the country edge into vigilante activity, police tend to have mixed views about how effective and helpful such groups are.

One point most police agree on: the need for better and fuller citizen reporting of suspicious circumstances or crimes in progress. According to Dr. Wesley Skogan, a professor of political science and urban affairs at Northwestern, the rate of citizen reporting has remained "amazingly constant" over the years. Research indicates that speed in such reporting is critical.

"The burden of preventing crime has always been on citizens," says Dr. Lavrakas. "The police detect very little themselves -- they're busy reacting."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.